The Case of the Vanishing Wisconsin Deer Genetics

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“We’ve got big whitetails because this area was restocked with deer from Wisconsin.”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a statement like this one, and if you hunt in the South like I do, you’ve heard it too. There’s probably no genetic connection whatsoever between Wisconsin stockers and present-day deer, but facts rarely get in the way of a good story.

That’s right, I said there’s probably little or no genetic connection between Wisconsin deer stocked decades ago in the South and the deer that exist at those sites today. That statement will shock some people, so let me introduce you to the DNA research that supports my argument.

In the mid 1900s, whitetails were restored to much of their former American range through restocking efforts. According to restocking records, most of the deer did not cross state lines: The majority were captured and moved from one area to another within a single state. However, out-of-state transfers occurred as well, and Wisconsin was the leading donor, especially in the South. For example, Wisconsin donated 309 deer to Arkansas, 616 to Florida, 439 to Georgia, 300 to Kentucky, 363 to Louisiana, 358 to Mississippi, 167 to North Carolina, 662 to Tennessee, 369 to Virginia, and 447 to West Virginia. These deer weren’t dumped in one location in each state but scattered out in small stockings in several locations over time (the counties of the stockings, and numbers of deer, are listed for each state in A History of White-Tailed Deer Restocking in the U.S.).

Restocking was huge news among hunters in these states at the time, and many older hunters still fondly recall the first deer track they saw in their area as deer populations recovered. Word spread among hunters about local stockings, especially if the deer came from Wisconsin, and those stories passed into legend. Decades later, hunters still refer to those old stocking events with reverence and as a way of explaining big whitetails killed today.

To believe there is a genetic connection spanning 50 years or more, you first have to assume the Wisconsin deer survived and thrived. Then you have to assume they dominated reproduction in the local area despite competition from other genetic strains of deer. Most hunters don’t realize there was a lot of competition.

Records clearly reveal that the majority of stocked deer came from in-state sites where deer had managed to hold on in sustainable numbers. For example, Tennessee got 662 deer from Wisconsin but trapped and transferred 7,679 deer within its own borders. Georgia got 439 from Wisconsin but moved 2,204 within the state. Kentucky: 300 vs. 8,710. Arkansas: 309 vs. 2,702. North Carolina: 167 vs. 3,319. And so on. Every single southern state accomplished restocking by relying far more on deer from within its own boundaries than on deer from out of state. In most cases, deer from both in-state and out-of-state sources were released in the same counties.

To find out if those Wisconsin deer survived, thrived, competed, produced offspring, and left genetic traces still visible in today’s deer, you’d need to study whitetail DNA. Researchers did that.

Collaborators from Mississippi State and Texas A&M Universities, as well as the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, studied the DNA of hundreds of deer harvested by hunters at 16 different locations scattered all over the state of Mississippi (which historically, by the way, received 358 deer from Wisconsin and moved 2,491 deer within its own borders).

They found that the 16 deer populations could be separated into two distinct genetic groups.

One of these groups was genetically similar to deer from the Leaf River Refuge in southeast Mississippi – which had been one source of live deer restocked throughout the state. Leaf River itself had previously been restocked with whitetails from Mexico before it served as a source of deer for additional restocking efforts in other areas of the state.

The other distinct group was genetically similar to deer at sites in Mississippi where whitetails had never been wiped out – in other words, native Mississippi deer.

The researchers did not find a single population that was genetically similar to the Wisconsin stocking source, despite the fact that more than 350 deer were brought from Wisconsin during the restocking era and released at sites in Mississippi.

Why did Wisconsin genetics fade out while deer from Leaf River Refuge (with Mexican whitetail genetics) and from other sites within Mississippi dominated? Dr. Randy DeYoung, a doctoral candidate at Mississippi State University when he conducted the study and now a professor at Texas A&M-Kingsville, offered these thoughts in a 2004 Quality Whitetails article:

“One reason may be that northern deer are known to be more highly susceptible than southern deer to some diseases, such as hemorrhagic disease. The Wisconsin deer and their offspring may have died out before they could influence the genetic makeup of local populations. Or it may be that big-bodied Yankee deer wearing heavy fur coats just didn’t fare as well as their smaller southern cousins in steamy Mississippi.

“Whatever the reason,” Randy said, “time seems to have erased any contribution the Wisconsin deer may have made.”

While this study only looked at Mississippi, I believe it’s likely such studies would find the same thing in other southern states. Throughout the South, the recipe was the same: a handful of Wisconsin whitetails sprinkled in with much larger numbers of deer that were native to the state or at least to the South. These “local” deer were much better equipped and adapted to survive and thrive after the move.

Hunters who believe they see Wisconsin deer today in the beds of Southern pickup trucks are making the assumption that any deer shipped in from an exotic location and turned loose will not only survive but reproduce, and that over time those genes will thrive and compete with genes from locally adapted deer. Considering the Mississippi study, this is a leap we just can’t make.

So, how do we explain those outstanding bucks in pickup beds? They are as much or more a product of quality year-round nutrition and age. Wherever your local deer genetics came from, you can’t change them. But you can change nutrition and age through Quality Deer Management: increase numbers of mature bucks by protecting young ones, balance the sex ratio, and provide quality nutrition year-round through sound habitat management techniques. Then you can say:

“We’ve got big whitetails in this area because we produce them on our own through Quality Deer Management.”

  • Carter Coleman

    Lindsay,
    I apologize, dead wrong may have been a little much however the situation Clay and I described contradicts your article. This may be true in other parts for the US but not for south Georgia. My family has been land owners and stewards for generations and closely watched the stocking and progress of both the whitetail deer as well as the wild turkey in our area. You may be interested in more information from Clay and I concerning our situation because it is truly remarkable the difference in 15 miles concerning body weights and antler sizes. Sorry I came off so brash, I love reading the QDMA articles and truly appreciate what you do.

  • Carter Coleman

    This is dead wrong for the state of Georgia at least. Whitetail deer were nearly extinct in Georgia besides on the coast and Piedmont regions so there was no competition from other genetic strains. In 1962, 10 deer from WISC of unknown sex were released on the Lowndes/Brooks Co line which is just west of I-75. In 1964, 16(2B,14D) deer from the Piedmont region of Georgia were released in east Lowndes Co. near Moody Air Force base. There is a drastic difference in the size of whitetails between the two counties and its not due to any increase in nutrition. Both counties have plenty of ag land.

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Carter, thanks for reading and commenting.
      “Dead wrong” is a strong statement. Are you absolutely certain of your position on this? You’re confident there are no variables you haven’t considered that could also explain what you are seeing in these two areas? For example, those stockings you refer to weren’t the only ones in that region. There were also earlier stocking events in the late 50s in Clinch, Echols and Lanier counties (which border Lowndes to the east) that were all done with native Georgia deer. Additional stockings of native Georgia deer took place throughout that region in the 60s and even 70s. And are you certain native deer were “extinct” in the Brooks/Lowndes region prior to this? Some deer held on in small pockets, especially in river floodplains in south Georgia, like those that run through this area. Also, when you say there is a “drastic difference” today in the size of whitetails between the two counties, what are you basing this on? Anecdotal observations of a few deer, or actual collected data? If there’s data, does it compare the two groups evenly in terms of deer sex, age and sample size? There are many, many examples of deer populations that are in close proximity to each other but exhibit size variations that are explained by many other factors besides genetics – soils, local deer management choices, etc. The ultimate test would be DNA sampling in the region you are talking about to compare the two locations today. Short of that, I don’t think you or me can claim the other is “dead wrong.” But the case I make with this article is that Mississippi is a strong parallel situation to Georgia: A few deer from Wisconsin and a lot of deer from within the state used for restocking. And the fact is, today there’s no evidence at all of Wisconsin genetics remaining in Mississippi.

      • Clay Browning

        Lindsay,
        I can’t speak to the situation in Mississippi. But as a life long resident with over 25 years experience hunting whitetails in both of these counties. I have to agree with carter. I have seen well over 100 deer of both sexes harvested from each county as well as a few from the other counties you mention. A mature east Lowndes county buck will be an average of 40lbs lighter on the hoof than a Brooks County buck. A mature doe will average 25 lbs lighter. There is more than anecdotal evidence. You are correct there were previous restockings in those counties from muliple in state locations many from the barrier islands of Georgia


About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA's Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.